First question: Where is Poland, exactly? Before leaving, I tried to make a list of everything I knew about the place, but I knew only two people who'd been to Poland. One told me about a vodka involving buffalo and blades of grass. (It's called Zubrówka, I learned after, um, trying it several times, and it comes with a free blade of bison grass in every bottle—cuuuute!) The other was a musician who'd been to Poland on tour, and while he was there, he obtained a life-size chocolate baby. Both anecdotes sounded promising. I didn't know anyone else who knew much about Poland. Most people said, "You're going to Portland?"
My coworker Paul Constant warned me that there would "only be sausage" to eat, because he knows I'm a vegetarian. "Just so much sausage."
For boring last-minute reasons, I had no time to pack (three pairs of sunglasses! One shirt! Giant black platform boots! [they're actually my most comfortable footwear, I just look like Marilyn Manson, but whatever, rave while you can, y'know?]) before getting on a plane with a handful of Sub Pop staff (other Sub Poppers were already there) and one Hardly Art employee (Hardly Art, a subsidiary of Sub Pop, released my band's most recent record, to make this conflict more interesting, but The Stranger paid for my flight). Also on the plane: 25 babies with brand-new lungs. I hadn't prepped. Lonely Planet or Polish Yelp or whatever seemed too daunting.
It had been a while since I'd taken any 12-plus-hour flights. I will talk about the festival and the music and all that, but let's first talk about 12-PLUS-HOUR FLIGHTS. You're seated in the early afternoon your time. After wine and dinner, they abruptly shut off the lights and tell you to close your window shades—even though it's clearly bright out there. The forced/false time environment thing made me very nervous. When ordering wine, I asked the flight attendant, "Oh, would it be possible to order two at a time, you know, I just don't want you to have to come back and it'd be easier to [mumble mumble something something trail off]..." It would be possible. They were maybe not super-happy about it, but don't you think airlines should be forced to give you more wine in exchange for less legroom? It's in everyone's best interests.
Six glasses of wine later, I still couldn't sleep.
Or relax. I half-watched a brutal Kevin Costner movie via the guy in front of me. It involved close calls with meat saws. I took a "nervous airplane pill" and had one more glass of red wine, which I spilled all over my camel-colored shirt. At one point, I decided to try to get back into the Jesus and Mary Chain, because the Jesus and Mary Chain were playing at this festival in Poland. I summoned up Psychocandy. Oh yes, my problem with J&MC is that it's either too distorted or too slow or too hissing and shapeless, except for "Taste the Floor" (hissy but with a melody). I listened to "Taste the Floor" 15 times before moving on to M.I.A.'s entire discography. I imagined the Sub Pop crew to be Jesus and Mary Chain pros, and they'd all be backstage during the Jesus and Mary Chain's set having intelligent conversations about the deep cuts, and my only contribution would be: "Uh, I like that one that sounds more like a pop song. Because my brain likes predictable song structures, I guess, and how about that last M.I.A. album?" And I would be on the next flight home.
Almost exactly when I got the correct pillow-to-sweatshirt-to-knee ratio figured out, determined to nap, the lights came on. Breakfast time. I ate the cutest tiny fruit cup and felt like a human Xerox. We landed. Before getting off the plane, I was handed a pear by a flight attendant. I liked the pear gesture. "Here, take this pear with you to remember us by. Nothing too showy, just an internationally all-right fruit."
In the Warsaw airport, we were greeted by Jonathan Poneman, the cofounder of Sub Pop (he knew Kurt, you guys), and his super-rad wife, Magdalena Lenka Panak (who goes by Lenka and did not mind how hard it was for us Americans to even learn "thank you" in Polish). They'd arrived before us. We all piled into a minivan/shuttle thing with two bench seats facing each other. Poneman pointed out spots of interest while a Euro-disco cover of Genesis's "Land of Confusion" played on the radio. I saw a billboard that, from what I could gather, was advertising cans that looked like they were for sardines (or cat food) that contained desserts like tiramisu, for those on the go. We passed a statue of Ronald Reagan. Poneman's knowledge of Poland was to be expected, given that it's where Lenka is from, but it was still impressive—sort of like finding out about a friend's unexpected hobby of building ornate indoor sand castles or something. (Oh this? This is just my indoor-sand-castle-building room. I've gotten really good at it.)
We decided to stay awake until a reasonable Poland bedtime (I'd been awake for 25 hours at this point) and took a walk through a cobblestoney neighborhood. The architecture was heavy and dense—solid structures, bluntly decorated. Five girls in matching blue tulle skirts with matching blue bikes rode by, and I thought I was hallucinating.
At dinner, we took turns almost nodding off at the table, occasionally getting second and third and fourth winds due to a few "apple pie" rounds: a special Polish drink consisting simply of apple juice and the buffalo-grass vodka we've already discussed. I watched a giant sprinkler water concrete stairs with no lawn anywhere nearby. We talked about Jack White and Jack White's warehouse of matching-uniformed workers. At one point I was so tired, I honestly couldn't remember any of Paul McCartney's wives individually and mixed them into one wife. When we got back to the hotel, I perused the OFF Fest website, googled "life-size chocolate baby" (DON'T), and fell asleep listening to a Polish band called the Dumplings.
I may not know anything about Poland—this was, in fact, my first time in Europe—but I do know about music festivals. Boy do I. As a music fan, music journalist, and musician, I have been to a fuck-ton of music festivals, so I was excited to see how Poland would do it.
OFF Festival is held in a place called Katowice (cat-o-wveecheyy), which is a three-hour train ride from Warsaw. I bought some candy in the train terminal, which came pre-melted and tasted like a mellow Kit Kat with chopped up peanuts and the milkiest milk chocolate you can get away with while still calling it "chocolate." I would have preferred chocolate the size of a baby, but none was available.
Katowice was comfortably run-down—construction and graffiti everywhere. A cab driver told me there was nothing very special about it, just that OFF happened there. The hotel in Katowice was overrun with Sub Pop people, and the hotel bar stayed open late because they knew their audience. Our drinking buddies that first night included Rose Windows, a six-piece psych/folk band from Seattle. Their debut, The Sun Dogs, was released last year on Sub Pop. They have a flute player.
Also staying at the hotel was a couple who'd come from Scotland—two small, adorable, funny-sounding people who'd come many miles and were bragging about all two of the Scottish bands playing OFF. (The Jesus and Mary Chain and Belle and Sebastian.) They'd bought tickets months in advance. The beardliest Rose Window, bassist/vocalist Nils Petersen, encouraged the friendly Scots to catch Rose Windows' set the next day at 3 a.m. (yep, in the morning). They enthusiastically promised they would. The guy said, "What's the point of going to a festival if you're not going to see it all?" Whoa. Good point?
You'd think a hundred "apple pies" would knock you out, but I slept only two hours, either because my internal Seattle clock said it was morning again or because Polish television is just too fascinating: regular old movies and TV shows in English, but with Polish shouted on top of every scene! No need for subtitles, just talk right over that shit.
The festival grounds the next day were foggy and green. A small campsite off to the side of the road looked clean and cheerful—nothing like the circles of camping hell I'd experienced at festivals back home. OFF has four stages arranged around a large central getting-drunk area with booths for food, cigarettes, merch, actual tattoos, haircuts, and fine knickknacks. Get your hair cut right next to where people are getting permanent bloody tattoos! I immediately noted the vegan hut and the dumpling stand, and made a mental note to punch Paul Constant. Overall, everything was beautiful and simple, like a smaller Bumbershoot or a less-wooded Pickathon.
So the reason that any of us were here is because Sup Pop is super into Poland. Well, Jonathan Poneman is super into Poland, and that enthusiasm has benefitted Sup Pop's staff and roster of bands. Especially bands that want to go to Poland. Poneman was introduced to the festival in 2009, when he was invited to attend as the "guest of honor," and has attended every OFF since. This year, Sub Pop helped curate a stage for the first day of the festival. Also known as the "experimental stage," it was small and tented and stocked with a mix of Sup Pop bands and Polish bands. The lineup: a Polish rock duo called Wild Brooks (who unironically threw a basically-Nirvana riff right in the middle of a song), a man making what the festival guide described as "garbage rock" called Kaseciarz, the soft and sleepy songs of Lyla Foy (not my thing, but points for the Tori Amos cover and being English), the hiphop/noise-flood trio clipping. (god I hate that period), Detroit solid-rock dudes Protomartyr, the weird noise buffet Wolf Eyes, and of course Seattle's finest 3 a.m. masters Rose Windows.
"I'm like a nervous stage mother before the bands go on," Poneman said. "Then I can have a couple beers and 'woo' and relax a little." Asked why he likes this particular festival so much, he talked about festival curator Artur Rojek's "artistry, fandom, and attention to detail." He described Rojek, who is also a successful recording artist in Poland, as "a trailblazer in a country that has struggled to be taken seriously as a music market." Poneman added, "Western Europeans are discovering OFF because it's inexpensive relative to festivals back home, it's somewhat exotic, and the Poles are great hosts and legendarily appreciative audiences." (A three-day pass is about $80.)
The first Seattle band I saw was Perfume Genius, whose set over on the giant Trójka Stage started three minutes late. The crowd started clapping for him to start at 19:40 sharp. Did I mention we were on military time in Poland? WE WERE ON MILITARY TIME.
"Perfume Genius must be very important to Polish," said a man with a heavy accent next to me, noting the massive crowd.
"I think Black Lips too," replied his lady friend.
I found a swing set off to the side of the stage and zoned out to the piano and pain coming from the stage. The trees in front of me had bowl cuts; the weather was perfectly muggy. I don't know why I thought I'd be watching bands on a chilly cliff or something. And you know what? I finally figured out the right setting for Perfume Genius: alone on a swing set. Sad enough to feel things, but then again, you're still in public, swinging, so it's not like you're at home drinking a bottle of wine by yourself in the dark (which is what I had previously imagined to be the correct Perfume Genius setting). No, no, you're just going to swing along steadily to Mike Hadreas's emotional mewl over those ethereal, aching ballads... and think about how weird it is that you had to be in Poland to really get a load of him for the first time.
Then it was time to check out LA's clipping., an experimental noise-rap outfit that just released their second LP on Sup Pop a couple months ago. Clipping. are interesting because of the absence of beats. There are, instead, harsh noises deployed by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, while Daveed Diggs spits rapid-fire lines that sound poetic even when the subject matter is grisly. Diggs's sharp flow IS the beat. The weird sounds were appropriately loud—a saw buzz, crumpling latex, a chorus of shrill dental drills. The crowd went absolutely nuts. "OFF Festival, y'all are going the fuck in right now and I appreciate it," Diggs yelled. Afterward, Tony Kiewel, Sub Pop's head of A&R, brought up a good point: How does Diggs even know when to come in and out of the songs when your cue is, like, a vacuum noise?
Later, I asked Snipes and Hutson how they felt about the show and the festival. Hutson said, "We've played for large crowds before, but never for one so hyped up, and never have so many people known the words to our songs. For that to happen outside of the US was crazy for us. We were pretty messed up from the flights and such, so I think, from a technical standpoint, it wasn't the tightest set we've played, but who could hear over all that screaming anyway?" He added, "We weren't prepared to do [an encore]—we'd played all the songs we'd rehearsed—but the crowd just wouldn't accept that. We had to send Diggs out into the front row to shake hands and sign autographs for a half hour before people would leave and let us tear down our gear." Snipes said, "I think I turned to Bill when we were done and said, 'That was weird—it's almost as though they think we make enjoyable music.'"
By midnight that first night, my 19-year-old self would not let me not see Neutral Milk Hotel. And there he was—Jeff Mangum, alone on the stage, every person hanging on his every bleat. They played all the hits, and I think my giddy reaction surprised (horrified?) everyone near me. After a few songs, a NMH member wearing a stupid red hat said, "Stage-light guy, please don't turn the lights out! We need to see our instruments!" NERDS.
At 3 a.m., it was finally time for the Rose Windows set. I guess Poland really wanted to give everyone 12 hours of bang for their buck. Exhausted festgoers were strewn across the floor while the band set up. I stood by the stage, feeling insane and sort of faded (did I mention the vodka and apple juice? I must have), and then Rose Windows' slow-head-banging, more-Sabbath-y-than-usual-which-is-a-good-thing set started, with lead singer Rabia's voice stealing the show (as is usual). I asked Nils Petersen how he thought it went: "I was worried about playing so late in the night (or early in the morning), but there was still a sizable crowd there. And probably due to sleep deprivation, we played one of the most energetic sets we've ever done." When I asked him his thoughts on OFF as a whole, it all came down to a beard trim: "One thing I was in need of after three weeks on the road was a beard trim. And wouldn't you know it, OFF had a barber on-site." He mentioned that OFF's setting and multitude of nonmusical activities, including the actual tattoo stand where you could get actual tattoos, added to the experience. "I was tempted to get a tattoo but settled on just the beard trim. After some good company and a nice glass of whiskey, my barber told me for me it was free, and I was on my way."
By the way, Poneman was up until three in the fucking morning with us, watching Rose Windows until the last fans received autographs (a starry-eyed Pole asked me: "You know them? I must get the girl's signature, I must"). Poneman, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease last year at the age of 53, has more than earned the right to retire to mini-golf island or whatever highly successful people do and never listen to another record again, but that's not how he is. He had also been up drinking in the lobby with us the evening before, and he was more excited than anyone about all the staying up still ahead of us.
Let me just blast through the rest of the bands we saw and get it over with. Chelsea Wolfe played beautiful graveyard music for burning white candles to. Andrew WK is basically at this point just super-fun karaoke with a keyboard. The Notwist were a stage full of unassuming music geeks, each at their own sound station, chugging out precision spirals of shoegaze. Deafheaven looked and sounded like what it would look and sound like if spiders could make music. The Jesus and Mary Chain made some seriously flaccid rock and their lyrics seem like a prank. (Sorry not sorry.) Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires played a giant-sounding and fun-to-watch set of Southern rock 'n' roll, plus the drummer has nicer hair than Jennifer Aniston and he knows it. Perfect Pussy played a frenetic and very short set, and you still can't hear the vocals. Belle and Sebastian were oh so charming, duh.
But the act that blew me away was a band I'd never heard of. And definitely didn't know how to pronounce. And almost didn't even see.
It was the final day of OFF, and I was in a cab with Megan Jasper, Sub Pop's vice president, and Tony Kiewel. We were chatting about the crazy energy surrounding the clipping. show, when Kiewel received a text message from Poneman that simply said "omfg." Apparently that's not the kind of text message anyone is used to receiving from him, and we all laughed thinking it was a really weird thing to send with no follow-up. We headed to the food tent where I was introduced to the shandy—beer mixed with lemonade in a tall can that contains 2 percent alcohol—the perfect 1 p.m. refreshment for someone who wants to rage, but like, not that hard. Yet. As we shandied and shot the shit, I kept hearing drums and screaming from the experimental tent and finally decided to see what the fuss was. OMFG indeed.
They were called DakhaBrakha, and it was three women and one man seated on the stage. The women were wearing what looked to be ornate white wedding dresses and giant furry cone hats. The man was dressed in traditional Turkish formal wear. The women sang haunting folk songs, their voices twisting in harmonies that almost didn't sound human. As the music amped up, two of the women beat drums with a percussive force usually reserved for the heavy-metal genre. Someone played a stringed instrument that sounded like icebergs moving. The crowd was both wound up and mesmerized, packed in and screaming and yelling.
"DakhaBrakha were so thrilling, so spellbinding, and so utterly moving, it was an event unto itself," Poneman said later. "There was OFF, and then there was DakhaBrakha. They were enchanting and unlike anything that I've ever seen before." He called it "the performance of the festival" and bemoaned that DakhaBrakha was "not on the Sub Pop roster... yet."
DakhaBrakha played Bumbershoot last weekend, too. Even though they were scheduled on the hottest day of the festival, they played with the same mesmerizing energy (and woolly cone hats!) as before.
At the Black Lips show in Poland, I had an epiphany. I can't believe I just typed that sentence. The Black Lips were playing in the rain, and the audience was bobbing happily, and crowd surfers were spilling out into the photo pit and being kindly escorted back into the crowd by friendly Polish men in yellow raincoats with pointy hoods. During "Hippie, Hippie, Hoorah," I stared at the light show projected onto the forest that made the trees look like they were coming alive and opening up to the reverb. It dawned on me: Does no one here smoke weed? Why is no one here fucked up?
And it hit me, that's what was missing from OFF Festival: the zoned-out drug-induced nothingness on the faces of the attendees. You know that "Let's get dressed up to get wasted and not actually see any bands" vibe that seems to have taken over larger ultra-branded American festivals like Coachella in the past few years? OFF is not like that. I was keeping an eye out for crazy festival fashions, but I have to say, I didn't see many—Poland seemed to be more into the cutely dorky concept of pairing a one-off "zany" item with an otherwise totally normal outfit. Cargo shorts and a party hat! T-shirt and bow tie! Tevas and green lipstick! Khakis and a tie-dye shawl! Goose hat with goose legs as ear warmers! Neon galoshes. Blue Afro wig. Sequin top hat. Actual Pain leggings. And so many band shirts. I started a Sonic Youth shirt tally, which got to six within a couple hours. I was startled to see a RVIVR shirt—Olympia's best underground power-pop-punk band—on a young Polish punk, who told me RVIVR were one of his favorite bands and that his good friend had booked their show when they'd come through Warsaw. The festival is still small enough, still out of the way enough, that it's pretty much music-nerd heaven.
I hadn't even seen anyone that visibly wasted on good ol' booze. Don't get me wrong, there were more people in the beer area than at any given stage at certain points, and they drank and drank and drank, but the mega-piles of garbage and vomit I'd come to accept as festival ornaments were noticeably missing. I loved it. It was so friendly. It was so music-oriented. I made a mental note to bring a suitcase of drugs to OFF 2015. (KIDDING.)